The National Symposium on Indigent Defense: Perspectives on the DOJ’s Effort to Address the Indigent Defense Crisis

February 22, 2010
Guest Post

By Virginia Sloan, President and Founder, The Constitution Project; & Cait Clarke, Director of Public Interest Law Opportunities, Equal Justice Works

Across the country, public defender offices are underfunded and understaffed, drowning in overwhelming caseloads. Public defenders are dedicated lawyers trying their best to represent their clients in often-impossible circumstances. Even worse, in many areas around the country, there are no public defender systems at all, resulting in a haphazard system of appointing lawyers who may be unprepared, without sufficient resources, and have no relevant experience.

It has been nearly 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gideon v. Wainwright decreeing that there is a constitutional right to a lawyer in criminal cases and that the government must provide one if the defendant cannot afford one. The Court recognized that well-trained and adequately resourced defense lawyers are the best way to determine whether the right person has been arrested for a crime. Yet states and localities are not providing the funds to pay for these lawyers, meaning that poor people are languishing in jail at the taxpayers' expense with no real opportunity to mount a defense.

While funding for indigent defense has increased since Gideon was decided, funding is woefully inadequate and the current economic crisis confronting many state and local governments is exacerbating the situation tremendously.

The U.S. Department of Justice has just hosted a National Symposium on Indigent Defense, the first of its kind in 10 years. One of the goals of the Symposium was to look at America's indigent defense systems in each state from top to bottom, and to examine both successful and failed attempts at indigent defense reform. Attendees committed to working together to craft new ideas for successful reforms, while forging alliances and building partnerships to achieve them. We applaud the Department of Justice's leadership in hosting this Symposium. It is a much-needed effort to spotlight the failings of the nation's criminal justice system and the crises persisting in state public defense programs.

However, the Symposium is, in our view, only the beginning of the work that must be done to fulfill the promise of Gideon.

As Thomas Perez, the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, said in a speech to the Symposium, the indigent defense crisis is the civil rights issue of our time. While many private organizations and individuals are working hard to address the crisis, they simply do not have the resources and cannot do it alone. With limited state and county resources and capacity, the federal government must step in and become a full partner in these efforts, providing critically needed resources and leadership.

We have long known how to fix these problems. The report of the Constitution Project's National Right to Counsel Committee, Justice Denied: America's Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel, is the most comprehensive examination of the indigent defense crisis in over 30 years. The Committee, whose members represent every relevant part of the criminal justice system, including prosecutors, judges, victim advocates, defenders, bar leaders, and scholars, unanimously concluded that this country's indigent defense system is in crisis, that the government has for too long ignored its obligation to provide lawyers in these cases, and that it cannot be ignored anymore. The report outlines 22 urgently-needed recommendations for reform.

One of the most important recommendations is that indigent defense should be provided through an independent, non-partisan authority that appoints qualified, experienced lawyers who have adequate resources. Of equal significance is the recommendation that the federal government assist the states in ensuring that the Sixth Amendment is protected and that poor people have the kind of lawyers to which they are constitutionally entitled. The federal government provides badly-needed funding for law enforcement and prosecutors, but to continue doing so without also providing funding for public defense services simply exacerbates the already untenable situation.

Another recommendation is that the federal government should create a federal office of public defense services to distribute funds, collect data, promulgate standards, and develop and deliver training similar to the federally-supported training for state and local prosecutors. Additionally, the federal government should require all states to abide by national standards for public defense. Adoption of the American Bar Association's Ten Principles would provide constitutionally adequate legal representation for criminal defendants unable to afford an attorney.

One innovative idea that will improve the quality of representation for indigent defendants is to create a national fellowship program to cultivate and train the next generation of indigent defense lawyers. This would dramatically increase the number and caliber of lawyers working to secure justice for clients and communities. Equal Justice Works, working in partnership with the Southern Public Defender Training Center (SPDTC), is proposing to do just that. We urge the Department of Justice to support this effort with adequate resources for three-year public defense fellowships for committed lawyers who can work to change the culture of indigent defense systems nationwide.

We applaud the Department of Justice for hosting this National Symposium on Indigent Defense, for recognizing the crisis in indigent defense, and for taking an important first step in the right direction. We call on the Department to take the next steps of educating all Americans about the crisis and the need to address it, and -- most important of all -- to provide the resources that are so urgently needed to ensure that Gideon's promise is finally fulfilled.

[Image via Wade Wofford.]